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Frankenstein 1970

Monday, August 6th, 2012

“‘I, Frankenstein, began my work in the year 1740 A.D. with all good intentions and humane thoughts to the high purpose of probing the secrets of life itself with but one end, the betterment of mankind.’  So wrote my celebrated ancestor, but first he had to learn how flesh is made. He had to discover the art of transplanting vital organs from human beings into his creature and knitting them together until they all had all the attributes of God-inspired birth. Of course, I must admit that perhaps he was not too scrupulous about where he got his raw material.” — Boris Karloff as Baron Victor von Frankenstein in Frankenstein 1970.

I have always had a peculiar affection for this film, and since right now I’m teaching a course on the Gothic Horror film, but not running this title, I thought I’d say a few words about it here. It was shot in December 1957 in exactly eight days, on sets left over from Too Much, Too Soon, the Diana Barrymore biopic directed by Henry Blanke. The main set was a huge, baronial castle, which fit Frankenstein 1970 perfectly, and the film’s director, Howard W. Koch struck a deal to use them on the Warner Bros. lot, inasmuch as Jack L. Warner seemed favorably disposed to the idea.

Karloff was then on a “play or pay” deal with Koch and his partner, Aubrey Schenck — they had to come up with something for Karloff to appear in, or else pay him $30,000 for doing nothing. Karloff’s services were too valuable to waste, and so the film was summarily scripted by George Worthing Yates, Aubrey Schenck, Charles A. Moses and Richard H. Landau in record time, going under a number of titles until the team finally settled on Frankenstein 1970.

Actually, I’ve written about this film many years ago, an essay in a book entitled Approaches to Frankenstein, but since I no longer have a copy, I’m quoting it from memory. Karloff, as Baron Victor Von Frankenstein, is the last surviving member of the line, and has suffered horrible tortures during World War II at the hands of the Nazis, with whom he refused to cooperate. Now, a quarter of a century later, he is alone in his castle, still working on his experiments with life and death, but funding has dried up.

To raise capital for his work, he allows a rather aggressive and intrusive exploitation film crew to shoot a Frankenstein TV special in his castle, which will pay for the nuclear reactor the Baron desperately needs to continue his labors. When body parts prove in short supply, however, he starts systematically killing off members of the film crew, and even his own butler, to obtain the vital organs he needs to continue his research.

In the end, of course, the whole plan falls apart, and the Baron’s illicit experimentation is discovered, but in the film’s final moments, it’s revealed that rather than fashioning some sort of crude human form, the Baron has given the creature his own face, before it was so horribly disfigured by the Nazis. When the police and the remaining members of the film crew break into his lab, they discover that the Baron has audiotaped a record of the entire process, and the film ends with a close-up of a tape recorder playing back his final words, “I gave you a heart, a brain, eyes . . . ” and the film fades out.

Shot in what Raymond Durgnat has famously called “the most irredeemable of genres,” black and white CinemaScope, Frankenstein 1970 is a cheap film, with numerous defects, mostly on the part of Tom Duggan, a real life newsman who plays one of the supporting roles in the film for added publicity value, and does a very poor job of it. But faced with a mere 8 days to get the film in the can, Koch smartly decided on using long, langorous takes, in which Karloff effortlessly dominates the proceedings.

As an added touch, and for extra revenue, the Baron agrees to act as the narrator of the television special — hence the quote at the top of this post — and as the director tells him after one lengthy take, “Baron, you pick up lines pretty fast.” Indeed he does, and the film, with its mournful sense of death, doom, and decay, and more than a little nostalgia for the past, proceeds faithfully along its predestined lines, and has finally been released in its proper CinemaScope aspect ratio as part of a four film box set on Warner Bros. DVD.

It’s no masterpiece, by any means, but there’s something desperate and appealing about it; it’s as if the Baron is rehearsing for the end he knows must come soon, and while shunning publicity, simultaneously embracing it, even as he hurtles headlong into a series of experiments which he fully knows can only end in disaster. Other than an episode of the television series Route 66, this was Karloff’s last association with the Frankenstein legend, which he’d rocketed to fame with in the 1931 original film. Everyone involved with Frankenstein 1970 ultimately seemed displeased with the results, including Karloff, but to me it’s an inspired riff on the original tale — perhaps because it so deftly deconstructs the legend it traffics in.

Worth a look, but only in the CinemaScope format, which is a revelation.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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